Alaska's Glaciers: Going With The Floes

When gently paddling amidst the mini-icebergs that grace Prince William Sound, you ponder one question: why walk?

We noticed the sound first. The brittle, crackling quality of nearby lightning, logically followed by a rolling boom of thunder. Like so many Gore-Tex-clad Pavlovian dogs, all six of us spontaneously scanned the bright blue sky and wispy, innocuous clouds for clues to the impending storm. Ten minutes later it came again, a brief crack and longer rumble. Roy laughed at our perplexed responses. "White thunder," he explained. The ominous sounds were emanating from deep within the 6 miles of super-compacted snow known as Harriman Glacier, creeping from mountaintops to sea just a quarter mile north of us.

Glaciers are what drew us-two other Backpacker staffers and their spouses, photographer Roy Corral, and me-to this rocky slip of beach at the head of Harriman Fiord, a 10-mile-long, 500-foot-deep finger of sea crooked northwest from the hand of Alaska's Prince William Sound. We had traded packs for sea kayaks and boots for double-bladed paddles, and for the next seven days and 55 miles we'd see classic Alaska from a waterborne viewpoint.

In a land of few trails, harrowing bushwhacking, and navigational challenges, kayaking poses an attractive alternative. Even a neophyte kayaker can see glaciers in their most dynamic environment, float harmlessly by landlocked bears, and soak up amazing mountain views without the epic thrashes.

For Roy, a long-time Alaska resident who entertained us with fantastic tales about homesteading in the Brooks Range and kayaking in Glacier Bay, this would be a chance to paddle another slice of his adopted home. It would be my third trip to the 49th state, and I was anxious to get up close and personal views of glaciers I'd seen as distant white slides during previous cross-country expeditions.

For the others, it was all numbingly new. "I never knew glaciers were in the mountains," Tanya had said as our drop-off boat motored past icy tongues trapped in the high valleys. A newcomer to outdoor life, Tanya absorbed the Alaskan expanses like a child at Disney World: excited and awestruck by the incredible spectacle, but a little apprehensive about the safety of the rides. Chris, her husband and Backpacker's associate art director, grinned with the zeal of the newly converted and nodded in agreement. "I've always thought glaciers and icebergs were the same thing," he said. Before this trip was over, we'd all be thoroughly familiar with glaciers and their floating offspring, commonly called icebergs or, when somewhat less than titanic in size, "bergy bits."

We spent the first day on a shakedown paddle to get acquainted with the boats, then tried to fall asleep in the Alaskan twilight. During the night, I half-awoke to rain drumming on the tent and fell back to sleep still expecting lightning flashes to accompany the distant thunder.

The next morning, we staggered out of our tents groggy and late, having missed our 4:30 wake up by nearly an hour. The peaks we'd marveled at the day before were obscured by a motionless bank of clouds, and rain tattooed the receding waterline, which was already a foot and a half closer to low tide.

The tide marked a force that would dictate all of our most important decisions. Twice every day, the seas on our side of the Earth would swell from the Pacific north into Prince William Sound, lapping at the shore and anything else within its 12-foot vertical rise.

And then, after a brief slack tide, when the waterline stayed put, the process reversed. Waves licked progressively lower as the water was sucked away. That's when we had to be loaded and ready to launch. Riding the outgoing flow, we could easily travel 4 or 5 miles in an hour. Get up late, dawdle too long, and we'd be working for every stroke as though paddling upstream against a wide, deep river.

Every day, we attempted to ride the tide to our home for the night. Day three, our goal was a hidden black-sand beach dubbed "not to be missed" by the kayak outfitters. It was tucked in beside Coxe Glacier, one of three glaciers that ringed the head of a giant inlet known as Barry Arm. We would need to hit the mouth of the inlet just as the tides changed, catching the rising flow for the last few miles to the site.

We timed it perfectly, reaching a tidal spit at the entrance to Barry Arm just as the water receded to its lowest level. Eerily sculpted icebergs perched on the gravel, stranded by the abruptly lowering tide like abandoned parade floats. It was the perfect spot for a break, and we passed a leisurely half hour mugging for the cameras next to the biggest 'bergs.

Just as we were pushing off, we heard a sudden rush of water behind us. The largest 'berg, some

15 feet high and 25 feet long, had fractured in half, collapsing outward where Chris had stood with his tongue pressed to the ice just minutes before. "Guess I won't be doing that anymore," he laughed nervously.

We paddled on, mostly in silence. On our left, the spit gradually rose and acquired vegetation. First grasses, then low alders and willow, until eventually it was far enough above the sea water to support Sitka and white spruce. "We're camping over there in bear country," joked Gary, who was more apt to be scanning for wildlife than making idle chatter. Moments later a black bear emerged from the brush to amble along the shore, and our destination for the night was sealed. It was the black-sand beach or bust.

Just when we were getting cocky about how easily we'd mastered this paddling routine, the tides and glaciers converged to test our patience, endurance, and even a couple of marriage vows.

Ahead, the three glaciers loomed like crystalline monuments. On our left, the aptly named Cascade tumbled to the water in a quarter-mile-wide jumble of corrugated ice and suspended rock. Barry lay directly ahead, twice as broad as Cascade but much more gently sloped. A third of a mile of rocky headland separated Barry from Coxe, which mirrored Cascade. All three were calving with alarming frequency, sending showers and rubble and whole slabs of icy architecture tumbling into the water. It was spectacular, but the incoming tide had compacted all this glacial flotsam into an icy slough at the head of Barry Arm. The campsite we sought lay on the other side.

For a mile, we floundered through slush and spinning bergy bits like drunken flies in the frozen margarita from hell. Jagged-edged blocks of ice made ominously sharp, grinding sounds against the hulls of our boats.

Roy led the way, I brought up the rear. The two couples, hampered by their double kayaks' greater heft and slower turning capability, honed their communication skills.

"Are you on drugs?!" Tanya's voice skipped from the bow of their yellow kayak like a flung stone. Chris, unable to see ahead but spurred by his wife's sarcasm, paddled even more furiously, propelling them squarely into a doghouse-size abstraction of ice. Nearby, Deborah and Gary beached their kayak on yet another rotting ice floe.

For the next hour, "fun" was not the F-word I heard flying from the lips of my cohorts.

The little black-sand beach became a sun-baked haven where we dried our gear and thawed our frosted nerves. We spent the evening reflecting on the day's events. Deborah and Tanya revealed their fears-born more of unfamiliarity than reality-that the ice would rend gashes in their boats or that a giant 'berg would suddenly flip, capsizing them into the frigid water. That day marked the turning point of our trip, and we paddled smoothly over or around the remaining obstacles. Petty conflicts became insignificant in a landscape where our presence was no more than a ripple on the vast acreage of water.

We passed the remaining days listening to our paddles dip musically in the water, meeting the imperious gaze of bald eagles, and playing tag with immense Stellar sea lions. The nights were spent camped by the lapping water or snug in primitive but wood-heated Forest Service cabins. But always, even when the ice had given way to the roaring waterfalls and lush moss of the Sound's warmer southern reaches, distant thunder filled our dreams.

Expedition Planner

Kayaking Prince William Sound

Getting There: Whittier is the jumping-off point for all western Prince William Sound routes. Currently, the best way to get to the town is by the Alaska Railroad (907-265-2494). Round-trip fare is $49 per person. A controversial new road from Anchorage to Whittier is scheduled to be completed by 2000.

Permits: None are required for kayaking the Sound, but reservations, taken up to 180 days in advance, are required for Forest Service cabins in PWS and other Alaskan sea kayaking destinations. Cabins cost $25 to $45 per night and they go fast. Call toll-free (877) 444-6777, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Alaska time Labor Day through March 31; 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 1 through Labor Day. Or reserve via the Internet: http://www.reserveusa.com.

Maps: Trails Illustrated's Prince William Sound West #761 ($8.99; 800-962-1643) provides a good trip planning overview and cabin locations, but you'll need USGS 7.5-minute maps for navigating. The Anchorage A-4 and Seward D-4 and D-5 quads cover our route.

Season: You'll avoid rain as well as bugs from mid-May to early June.

Special Equipment: The Forest Service (see "Contact," below) can recommend local outfitters. We used the following: Kayak shuttle service: Gerry Sanger of Sound Eco Adventures; (888) 471-2312 or (907) 472-2312. A drop-off to Harriman Glacier cost us $441 for two double and two single kayaks and six people. Kayak rentals: Prince William Sound Kayak Center: (907) 276-7235. A double kayak rents for $275/week, a single is $190/week.

Special hazards: Carry extra food, rescue flares, and bear spray, and allow at least one extra day in case you're stranded by bad weather. Consider taking a marine radio. Camp and kayak at least a quarter mile away from any glacier, and give large floating icebergs a wide berth-they are highly unstable and can spin at any moment and capsize your boat.

Contact: Glacier Ranger District, Chugach National Forest, P.O. Box 129, Girdwood, AK 99587; (907) 783-3242.

-M. Morris